Gulf News, August 4, 2005
The Pakistani government’s decision to bar 1,400 foreigners from studying at the country’s madrassas is not the solution to the country’s problem with terrorism.
None of the terrorists involved in international attacks linked to Pakistan, even tenuously, over the past several years have been regular foreign madrassa students.
Pakistan’s real problem is the training camps established by jihadist groups in the country, which were tolerated by the Pakistani State for strategic reasons.
Some of these camps operated alongside or under the cover of madrassas.
By focusing on madrassas, and then only on foreigners within the madrassas, Pakistani officials are once again missing the opportunity to come clean on the country’s recent past and move forward with a complete roll back of jihadism.
Blaming foreigners has become a convenient excuse in Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Muslim world, to avoid unequivocally condemning the extremist jihadists’ ideology of hatred.
It is not necessary for everyone in Europe or the Muslim world to agree with all aspects of US or British policy to acknowledge that many Muslims have been so consumed by hatred of the West that they have lost their moral compass.
Terrorism is reprehensible and most people know the definition of terrorism. Extremist ideologies that feed terrorism or justify and condone it deserve unequivocal condemnation.
Instead, non-steps such as expulsion of foreign students from madrassas continue to distract Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf’s regime from going beyond lip service in dealing with homegrown terrorism.
Pakistan’s madrassas breed hostility towards modernity, produce students without much contemporary knowledge and feed an overall atmosphere of obscurantism.
But madrassas have existed for centuries without producing terrorists. Producing medieval thought is not the same as producing radicalism.
The real reason why so many Islamist radicals from all over the world congregated or passed through Pakistan was the strategic decisions by Pakistan’s rulers to use jihad as an instrument of influence in Afghanistan and Kashmir.
If Pakistan is to move beyond the phase of officially tolerated jihadism, it is not the madrassas but the training camps and the militias spawned by them that need to be shut down.
For Pakistan’s intelligentsia, too, this is a moment of truth. The perceived or real flaws of Europeans and Americans must not be used as the basis for shifting responsibility for Islamist terrorism from its ideology of hate to specific US policy decisions, past or present.
The bulk of the recent victims of global terror have been Muslims, slaughtered by those claiming to speak in the name of a purer Islam.
This slaughter is hardly a rational response to “occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine”, as some commentators describe terrorist attacks.
A booklet by the Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure) declares the United States, Israel and India as existential enemies of Islam and lists eight reasons for global jihad.
These include the restoration of Islamic sovereignty to all lands where Muslims were once ascendant, including “Spain, Bulgaria, Hungary, Cyprus, Sicily, Ethiopia, Russian Turkistan and Chinese Turkistan … Even parts of France reaching 90 kilometres outside Paris”.
Blaming the United States for the delusions of these admittedly small groups confers a degree of legitimacy on Islamist extremists and undermines moderate Muslims struggling for the soul of their faith.
The United States’ support for the guerilla campaign against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan cannot be described as American endorsement of jihadist ideology.
From the US point of view, it made strategic sense to bleed the Soviets and force them out of Afghanistan.
The US channelled its support for the Afghan resistance through its ally, Pakistan, and other Western allies in the Muslim world, also supported the Afghans.
The Afghan resistance included secular nationalists as well as Islamist jihadists. It was Pakistan’s military ruler General Zia ul Haq who decided to allow Islamists from all over the world to congregate in Pakistan to train for war across the border.
America’s intelligence apparatus and intellectual community, focused on fighting communism, did not identify the potential of radical Islamists to emerge as a major global security threat.
That error must now be rectified by sharing the responsibility and blame.
To minimise the significance of the radical Islamists’ ideology, and blame America for attacks against the West, is as likely to swell the ranks of terrorists as real or perceived grievances within the Muslim world.